First Person

The Bittersweet End

Collin Lawrence is a former — and now present again! — New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

When I walked into school on Thursday, June 24, 2010, I knew that my final two days at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were not going to be the glorious ones I’d imagined. Word had been sent out that morning from the administration that no teacher would be allowed to leave the building without the permission of the payroll secretary, and that we’d no longer be allowed to stream world cup games in our classrooms. It was clear that the principal had not reacted kindly to the letter that we had written him the day before, outlining our concerns about being asked to sign documents acknowledging error in recording student attendance. We were being punished.

There was a meeting for returning teachers held at 10 a.m. I did not attend, but the teachers who did reported that the principal berated them. I was told that he walked in, held up the letter, and said it had made him “sick to his stomach.” He had taken particular exception to the first line of the letter, which spoke of the “unified staff of [the Brooklyn Arts Academy].” He said that, since he and the office workers were also part of the staff, the letter did not speak for everyone. He also said that he’d been planning to have an end-of-year celebration for the teachers, but that now he couldn’t do it. And he said that the Brooklyn Arts Academy would never be the kind of school he hoped it would be if teachers wrote letters like this. Then he walked out, leaving the assistant principal to finish the meeting with the stunned teachers. She gave the teachers an assignment to write a 2-4 page reflection about how they might integrate “key cognitive strategies” into their curriculum for the next year. The deadline was 3 p.m.

Those of us milling about got the lowdown as soon as the meeting was dismissed. All of us, teachers who were leaving and teachers who were returning, decided to have another meeting and see if we could think of any way to defuse the situation. We elected to call the network leader, essentially the supervisor of our principal, and ask him to mediate a conversation for us (the principal had outright rejected our request for a group meeting to address the attendance issue, saying instead that he’d be happy to meet with teachers as individuals). This was the same network leader who’d come to our first staff meeting of the school year and told us to communicate our concerns to our principal rather than taking out our frustrations in other ways (i.e. the learning environment surveys).

When we heard back from him, he essentially hung us out to dry. He told us that, since we’d gone to him without first informing our principal, it showed we weren’t sincere in our desire to improve communication in the building and therefore he wouldn’t help us. So there was nothing left to do. We signed the forms or not based on the best attendance records we had available and turned them in. I never heard anything more about it.

I received my end-of-year-review that day, but unlike in years past I got no feedback about my performance. The evaluation form was delivered to me by one of the assistant principals, who had nothing to say other than “sign here.” (I received an S rating, as did almost everyone else except the dean, who was given an unsatisfactory rating on the basis of poor attendance. When he told the principal that he had doctor’s notes, the principal reportedly replied, “I don’t care if you had cancer, it is principal’s discretion.”)

Near the end of that day, I went to find one of my colleagues who’d become my best friend on the staff over the years. She and I had started teaching at the Brooklyn Arts Academy at the same time four years ago, and were the only two remaining teachers from that year. This would be the last time I’d see her for a long time, as I was taking a personal day the next day (Friday) and she was leaving for a trip to Southeast Asia that weekend and would miss the final day (Monday). I hugged her goodbye, and she gave me a card and actually cried. We’d been through so much together, and it was unbelievable to me that it was ending like this. I was moved by her tears, which I don’t think were a response to present events but a genuine outpouring of emotion for the end of a bond we’d formed through this crazy, shared experience.

That weekend I flew to Chicago and was the best man in my twin brother’s wedding. During the day on Friday, before rehearsal, I jumped online and checked in with my colleagues back at the school. They reported that “it’s like a ghost town here” and that the principal wasn’t even around. So I didn’t miss much.

I returned Monday morning, the day of graduation and my final day at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, to a similarly empty-feeling school. On this day last year, the administrators had held a breakfast for the staff, and given cards and gifts to the teachers that were leaving. But I received no such recognition.

By 10 a.m., I had not heard a word from an administrator other than a “good morning” from one of the APs. The secretary came by to give me a new stack of attendance documents to sign. I was just sitting in a classroom, waiting around until it was time to go to graduation. The other AP did come by and said “good luck” to me and two other teachers who were leaving. She told us she was “sad” on that day. She noticeably did not say “thank you” to us for the work we’d put into building the school. I never saw the principal in the building, and never had any parting words with him.

I had written my own thank you notes for each and every one of the secretaries and members of the support staff who’d helped me out in various ways over the years, and so went around and said my own goodbyes. I also sent out an email to the entire staff, requesting that they come out for a post-graduation get-together. In this email, I wrote, “it has been a meaningful four years for me here and I would like to properly celebrate with everyone who has been a part of that. If I don’t get a chance to personally talk to you, know that I have enjoyed being a member of this staff and that I wish everyone the best of luck in the future. ”

The administrators left to set up for graduation around 11:30 a.m. and after that we were just in the building killing time. I eventually left to go out to lunch with a few of my colleagues and then we headed to the graduation venue.  An email I wrote the next day to my colleague who’d been absent (the one who cried on Thursday afternoon) describes the ceremony and captures my feelings at that time:

At graduation, [the principal] gave a speech about humility. It had nothing at all to do with the graduating class of seniors. He read an excerpt from James Baldwin that was over their heads. Other than that, though, graduation was nice. The choir and band performed. [One student] read a poem he’d written that included shout outs to many teachers and students (mine said something about “daily quizzes” in Lawrence’s class). [Another student] gave a speech. [The two music teachers] gave speeches. And the final performance was a song that was composed by [two students, a boyfriend and girlfriend] and performed by the choir along with [a few of the seniors] and a couple other boys who rapped while the choir sang behind them — it was actually really impressive.

I got to shake a lot of hands and take a lot of photos with the graduates, so that left me in a much better mood than beforehand. In the end, the students are the main reason we do what we do so it is more meaningful to receive positive feedback from them than our administration anyway.

That night, a colleague held an end-of-the-school-year party at his apartment. It would be the last time that I would see many of the teachers who’d become my friends over the last few years. The mood of the evening was a mix of incredulity at the absurdity of the final few days and euphoria for the end of an era (I wasn’t the only teacher leaving – the other three grade level team leaders were likewise moving on). We drank and were overly praiseworthy of one another, perhaps trying to compensate for lack of affirmation given by our administrators. I was buoyed by the kind words of my colleagues, for whom I’d become somewhat of a leader or spokesperson. They, at least, understood and appreciated how much of myself I’d poured into the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I stayed to the end. It felt like my party.

And so ended my career at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. After a long and intoxicating night, I slept in the next day. When I awoke, I felt fantastic. It was a new beginning. But it wasn’t going to be so easy to let go of the last four years. I needed time to process what it all meant. I knew that I wanted to write something.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.